It’s been a bit over two weeks since I blogged last…. It’s been even longer since i wrote anything about chess. To make up for it some what to all my loyal readers, I shall share an essay I wrote for my Women and Gender Studies class about Barbara Jepson’s 2009 Wall Street Journal article “Abolish Women’ Chess Titles” and the impact of women’s titles on female chess players. Feedback is of course welcome.
The game of chess unites millions of men and women all around the world. Many are members of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which regulates international competitions and promotes overall awareness of the game. FIDE awards the crème of the crop chess players with international titles. In recent years, there has been controversy over whether or not women should be eligible for separate female titles. In the Wall Street Journal article “Abolish Women’s Chess Titles,” Barbara Jepson proposes these titles and eventually female tournaments be abolished as they supposedly under-appreciate female chess players. Through analyzing the ways in which Jepson constructs gender, this paper attempts to illustrate how women’s titles and tournaments provide more benefits than costs to female chess players.
To understand the significance of women titles, it is important to understand how they construct gender. Judith Lorber aptly defines gender construction as she writes, “Most people find it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and recreated out of human interaction, out of social life, and is the texture and order of that social life” (33). While one is born male or female, his surroundings, interactions with others and the overall shape of society endlessly affect his gender. Female titles affect the relative strengths of male and female gendered chess players. They allow a female to gain a rise of social status when a man of similar caliber would not achieve any fame. Jepson illustrates this notion as she writes, “To qualify as a grandmaster (GM) today, men and women must earn two or more ‘norms’ at a performance rating of 2600 and achieve a published overall rating of 2500. But females attain the women grandmaster (WGM) designation by earning two or more norms at a performance rating of 2300” (1). As women have a significantly easier time achieving such a high status (200 fewer rating points) it is clear women titles construct gender by hinting that the lack of strong female chess players requires that to keep an even playing field of titled players, their requirements need to be more lenient.
To some extent, the lack of female talent can be explained by the minimal number of females who actively play chess in the first place: “women make up about 7.6 % of [FIDE]’s…100,456 rated players” (Jepson, 1). The 92.4% of men that play chess is far above Bose and Whaley’s benchmark for a male-dominated occupation: “An occupation is usually considered female or male dominated if it is at least 75% female or male”(197). Given the fact that significantly more men play chess than do women, a simple numbers game would hint that more men would reach the game’s highest levels. If women and men were to develop their chess skills on a level playing field, the expected percentage of men at the top levels would near 7.6%; however, “women make up” a mere “2% of the top 1,000 players world-wide”(Jepson, 1). As there is a great disparity between the ratio of male and female chess players and that of male and female masters, it is clear external factors cause females’ limited success in the chess world. In this case, Jepson constructs gender through showing quantitative differences in the results between men and women.
Likely because chess has been known for thousands of years as a royal, strategic, military-like game, it has been traditionally seen as more masculine than feminine. This perception is likely one cause of the gap in strength among genders. As Jepson writes, “Chess teachers say that girls are usually not as competitive as boys, and that hinders their performance”(2). Simon Baron-Cohen would likely support this reasoning: “Males tend to show far more ‘direct’ aggression, while females show more ‘indirect’ development”(81). Given the rationale that men naturally tend to be more aggressive than their female counterparts, their chance of having a fighting spirit on the chess-board should be higher. To the contrary, an analysis of the top rated contingent of American players proves otherwise. Correspondingly to Jepson’s findings regarding international ratings, the average United States Chess Federation (USCF) rating of the top-10 male players is 2729, 334.6 points higher than the average top-10 female player. While this incongruity exists, a comparison of the top male and female players’ average draw (tie) percentages shows that the top females actually generally have greater fighting spirits. As the average top-10 female player draws 22.3% of her games while the average top-10 male player draws 29.7% of his games, more top-level female games are decisive in one person’s favor.
It should not be surprising that females make up a minority of the top chess players however as “we should not expect that the sex ratio in occupations such as math or physics [or chess] will ever be 50-50 if we leave the workplace to reflect simply the #’s of applications of each set who are drawn to such fields”(Baron-Cohen, 92). Using Cohen’s logic, it makes sense that the level of men and women would not inherently be even. In contrast, “ It is.. the constitution of the body, but particularly education, religious observance, and the effects of the environment which are the… cause of all the many differences between people”(Barre,12). Therefore, it is up to both genders to take extra measures to ensure gender equality in chess. As a good sign, organizers have taken initiative in the last few year; for example, the United States All-Girls National Championship is now an annual event.
As females are not necessarily less aggressive then men, there needs to alternative explanations to why their success is limited. Women do not always get the same level of resources to help them improve. Jepson explains this unfairness: “Lack of access to expert training hindered the development of many female players in the past, since most chess clubs were overwhelmingly male and sometimes hostile”(2). Despite the fact that some of the strongest women are more competitive than men, women remain a minority in the chess world and do not have as much support to improve. In children tournaments, the gender mix is relatively equal; however, as girls age they tend to drop out of the community due to peer pressure. Jepson quotes an International Master Irina Krush: “My feeling is that women overall are not as fanatical about [chess] as men”(2). The fact that Irina Krush goes by the title “International Master” is significant because it means that she prefers to go by the unisex title rather than the similarly leveled “Women Grandmaster”. Krush supports her feeling by saying, “chess is a pretty solitary activity”(2). As females are often more social then men, they are prone to participating in more interactive activities. Not surprisingly “ the 7 out of the 10 most common occupations for women [that] are dominated by female workers including secretary, cashier, and registered nurse” all require frequent communication with customers or clients.
Given both the differences between male and female characteristics and external factors, it is important to determine whether or not women’s titles and tournaments should exist. By stating her beliefs and quoting others, Jepson clearly outlines their pros and cons. To some degree, they provide females a means to play chess professionally: “women’s events and prizes and provide economic benefits that otherwise wouldn’t be available”(2). While female chess professionals do exist, like females of other occupations, they face difficulties: “As the mother of a toddler, [the ex-Women’s World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk] cited the problems posed by frequently travel to international tournaments, many of which last for two or three weeks”(2). As Jepson insinuates the issue of gendered parenting, it is clear if more women are to become strong masters, major events like the Olympiads would need to provide child support. This requirement especially exists in the modern day when more and more mothers want fiscal responsibilities as “Amy, a 24-year old” said “I want a fifty-fifty relationship, where we both… [would work], and [deal] with kids”(Gerson, 263). Like Amy, Kosteniuk wants to give her kids both financial and emotional support.
While such benefits exist, world titles and tournaments are questionably unfavorable towards women. Jepson states they are an “anachronistic and demeaning practice” and quotes Krush: “Women’ s titles are really a matter of lower expectations”(1). Many women agree with Jepson and Krush as “on average, girls show more concern for fairness”(Baron-Cohen, 80). In this regard, they believe they are not instruments to raise women’s potential but rather sources of emotional support for those who could not become strong enough to qualify for overall titles.
Thus women titles and tournaments and their impacts on female chess players should be re-examined. As Jepson socially constructs make and female chess players, she illustrates how while the separate titles and tournaments create an imbalance among genders, they provide economic benefits for women. For better or worse, women have had fewer great results than men in chess, and it is clear extra measures need to be taken for their success. As long as women can earn other titles as well and play in the same tournaments as men, female titles are a viable way to motivate women and allow them to financially benefit from chess.